Last month, as many as 200 inmates at Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center in Vinita got involved in what was initially described as a gang fight.
It was exactly what the underfunded, undermanned Oklahoma prison system did not need.
The next day, the fighting — later termed “riotous behavior” by Gov. Kevin Stitt — spread to five more prisons across the state.
The fights injured 36 inmates severely enough that they needed hospital treatment; at last report, eight were still hospitalized. Several correctional officers also were injured.
One Conner Correctional Center inmate died. Chad Burns, 27, was serving what amounted to a 15-year sentence on 16 Tulsa County felony convictions dating to 2016. His convictions included five armed robbery cases and a first-degree burglary.
To regain control of their own facilities, the Corrections Department imposed an indefinite systemwide lockdown. Statewide, prisoners were kept in their cells, and all visitations were cancelled. The already overburdened prison staff had to bring inmates food, water and medicine, and provide access to showers.
Last week, the prison system started gradually easing up, allowing controlled movement of most male minimum-security inmates and all female prisoners. Some prison telephones and dining halls were reopened, and some inmates were again allowed outdoor recreation time and access to showers. Some inmates returned to prison jobs and education programs. Visitation resumed at minimum-security prisons this weekend.
The Corrections Department says the violence appears to be related to a dispute between two prison gangs as well as racial tensions.
Shakedowns at the six prisons that had turned violent uncovered contraband cellphones, weapons and drugs.
In an executive order late last month, Gov. Stitt blamed illegal cellphones behind prison walls for the gang fight spreading across the state prison system.
“The proliferation of contraband cellphones in Oklahoma prisons constitutes an ongoing, serious and eminent public safety threat,” Stitt wrote in his executive order.
Cellphones are illegal in state prisons, but they are hardly uncommon.
Last year, Tulsa World reporter Curtis Killman reported that state prison officials had seized nearly 17,000 contraband phones in two years.
How do cellphones get into prisons? Sometimes they’re smuggled by employees, contractors, visitors, even drones. Other times they’re simply thrown over prison walls.
A cellphone behind the razor wire is as dangerous as the person who controls it. Some inmates use them benignly to keep in contact with their families.
There is a legal and monitored landline telephone system inside prison walls that most prisoners can use, but it is very expensive.
Under a 2012 contract with Texas-based Value Added Communications, and its parent company, Global Tel Link, inmates can make collect calls or use prepaid minutes. There’s a per-call fee and a per-minute rate. Friends and family of prisoners can prepay for up to $50 in phones calls, but they face at $4.75 transaction fee for each prepayment. Prisonphonejustice.org ranks Oklahoma’s legal prison telephone system for inmates as the 41st most expensive in the nation.
Inmate phone revenue to the state prison system for fiscal year 2019 totaled $3.6 million.
Of course, there are also inmates who want cellphone service so they can continue criminal activity.
According to prosecutors and his own attorney, Oklahoma State Penitentiary inmate Slint Tate — bored with life behind prison walls — used an illegal cellphone to run a large-scale methamphetamine ring from his maximum-security prison cell. If he ever wraps up his life-without-parole sentence on a 1999 Rogers County murder conviction, Tate can start on a 20-year federal sentence he took in a plea deal last year after the meth ring was broken up.
In his executive order, Stitt called on state agencies to look into all technological solutions to stop the problem, including geo-location of cellphone signals, cellphone jamming and other options.
Jamming is a possibility, but more challenging than you might guess. For one thing, a 1934 federal law prohibits its use.
If the state can get around that problem, jamming prison cellphones would require a big investment. Jamming technology could cost $1 million to $5 million per prison. Oklahoma has 24 state prison facilities and 12 contract facilities.
Jamming equipment is only good as long as it works. The same person willing to smuggle a cellphone to an inmate for money might be willing to break jamming equipment if the price is right. Five million dollars spent on a jammer that’s broken is a wasted $5 million.
Then there’s the problem of tuning a jamming system. It’s not as simple as drawing an electronic boundary around the prison walls and limiting the jammers to that perimeter. Some Oklahoma prisons are in urban settings.
Being down the street from a prison is burden enough without having your cellphone service blown apart.
There’s no justifying illegal cellphones inside prisons. They’re a potentially deadly weapon as sure as a shiv.
While the state needs to consider whether its inmate phone contract is driving part of the market for cellphone smuggling and whether it’s worth that price, the governor’s order is certainly justified — although its potential for success is uncertain.